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All's well that ends well?

A look at the ramifications of Ranjan Mudagalle's findings

Sambit Bal

September 28, 2006

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Darrell Hair: acted on a mere suspicion and acted in haste © Getty Images
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Ovalgate has got the resolution that most people wanted, and it was hardly a surprise. No one seriously believed the ball-tampering charges against Inzamam-ul-Haq¹s team would be, or could be, proved, and everyone expected Inzamam to get some sort of a ban. A crisis has blown over, and cricket has come out smiling. Well, almost.

Inzamam and Pakistan have got what they were seeking: they would feel that justice was done, their honour has been restored, and the four-match ban was a small sacrifice for their valiant hero who had stood up to be counted. In fact, it can be argued that Inzamam got off lightly; Sourav Ganguly had once got more for slow over rates.

The ICC would be mighty relieved that a hot potato is off its back lightly. It has been seen to have dispensed justice. Dropping the ball-tampering charge would make it look fair in the eyes of fans in the subcontinent, and the punishment to Inzamam is proof that the law has been upheld. Everyone can now get on with the business of cricket. For good measure, it has also announced that Darrell Hair will not officiate during the Champions Trophy. That would make, apart from Pakistan, who haven¹t wanted Hair for quite a while, even India, the powerful hosts of the Champions Trophy, happy.

But where does it leave Hair? The two-day proceedings ended with him fielding questions from the press with dignity and composure. There was little that he could say, but perhaps he was eager to say whatever little he could. The reason offered for dropping him from the Champions Trophy panel that the ICC were concerned about his safety was pathetic (that it would have been inappropriate to appoint Hair under the circumstances would have sounded far more convincing), but he sat through the inquest with a smile and helped cricket present a veneer of a happy family.

Of course, it was soon reported that the Pakistan Cricket Board was considering pressing the ICC to charge Hair with "bringing the game into disrepute", the very charge on which Inzamam was banned. It may never come to that, but there is enough in the 4047-word verdict delivered by Ranjan Madugalle to encourage Pakistan that they have a case.

The subtext of the verdict can be read as thus: Hair acted on a mere suspicion; he acted in haste (his fellow umpire wanted to wait); he could have avoided the crisis had he chosen the diplomatic route; and since there was the equal possibility of the ball being damaged naturally, the umpires were wrong in penalising Pakistan

Madugalle goes beyond merely giving Pakistan the benefit of doubt. "In my judgment," he says, "the marks were as consistent with normal wear and tear, and with the ball being pitched into the rough and contact with cricket equipment, as they are with deliberate human intervention." And then goes on to add: "If, as the umpires told us, the ball was in an acceptable condition after the 52nd over, it is, in my view, highly unlikely that the condition of the ball could have been changed so substantially thereafter by human action within a short period of play without some suspicious conduct by a fielder being noticed by an umpire, television camera, or third party."

He then virtually rejects the umpires' decision saying the "the physical state of the ball did not justify a conclusion that a fielder had altered its condition," and that he "would have expected the umpires to draw Mr ul-Haq's attention to the marks and to tell him that they intended to keep a close eye on the ball after each over."

The subtext of the verdict can be read as thus: Hair acted on a mere suspicion; he acted in haste (his fellow umpire wanted to wait); he could have avoided the crisis had he chosen the diplomatic route; and since there was the equal possibility of the ball being damaged naturally, the umpires were wrong in penalising Pakistan. Madugalle makes it a point to say it was not his case that the umpires were "perverse" or had "acted in bad faith", but it is a damning judgment nevertheless.

But having defused what Shaharyar Khan, the PCB the chairman, described as a time-bomb, the cricket community must guard against further damage. The worry is the outcome of this case will only reinforce old prejudices. One of the more distressing aspects of this controversy has been the way traditional stereotypes have played themselves out and the old fault lines have reopened. In light of how the incident has ended, it would be so tempting to conclude that Darrell Hair always had it in for the subcontinent.

If anything, Hair was guilty of officiousness and intransigence. In his overzealousness to uphold the letter of the law, he failed to grasp the wider ramifications of his actions. Had he chosen tact over the stentorian approach, the ball-tampering charge would have never come about, and had he been flexible, the Test could have been saved. But none of this makes him a racist. He has though taken some tough calls in the past, and to accuse him of bias just because some of these decisions have been against players from subcontinent would be both simplistic and betray a false sense of injury.

His calling of Mutiah Muralitharan was the right one under the prevailing law then. Regardless of the optical illusion created by his bent arm, it has been established that Murali's action involved a certain flex, and though it is permissible under the revised regulations now, Hair called what he saw. He subsequently reported Shoaib Akhtar, Harbhajan Singh and Shabbir Ahmed, and in each case, as was proven later, the action involved a certain straightening of the arm. Plenty of umpires have been known to share their suspicion about dodgy actions in private, but few have had the courage to act on it on the field.

Cricket needs strong decisive umpires, and Hair, for all his flaws, has been one. But the pity is that through this unfortunate misjudgment, he might have severely damaged the cause of strong and decisive umpires. It is both an irony and a tragedy.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.

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